Formal Garden: axes

“No phase of designing adds more to the charm of small properties and to the illusion of space than the skillful use of perspective.  Perspective is a broad and more or less technical term, which for our purposes can be translated into everyday language by the word “vista.”  Vistas are of many kinds –long or short, broad or narrow, formal or informal, sunlit or shady–and serve different purposes in garden planning.”  (Annette Hoyt Flanders, “The Value of Vistas in the Small Garden”, Good Housekeeping May 1934)

The Morven formal garden is organized around two axes, dating to the Marshall-era plan.  These axes are not oriented based on cardinal direction, but on vistas.  The design makes use of “borrowed scenery” – features far from the property that are incorporated into the design.

photo by Joseph Lee Vaughn, 1988 (UVA Special Collections)

Most visitors to Morven enter the garden on this axis, which frames the view of the mountains beyond.

This diagram shows the axis in plan.  In analyzing the plan, it becomes apparent that this long axis is crossed by another primary axis.

This axis, leading down to the stone overlook and curved steps is oriented toward a second view, described as the “sea view” – a view across the land leading down to the James River, which appears blue and rolling in the distance.  This view has been obscured somewhat by trees growing in the Japanese garden, but this image gives a sense of the view.


photo by Joseph Lee Vaughn, 1988 (UVA Special Collections)

Historic photograph showing the stone overlook and curved stairs. The area planted with rhododendron, at lower right, is today part of the Japanese Garden.


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restoration or design?

Did Annette Hoyt Flanders design the Morven gardens, or restore them?  This has been an ongoing question in my research, and the answer largely depends on historic perspective.  Many of the “restoration” projects undertaken by Arthur Shurcliff and Alden Hopkin the 20th century might be described as “colonial revival” designs today: Colonial Williamsburg and the UVA Lawn Gardens, among others, were restored based archaeology, and studies of landscapes from the same period.  The landscape architects had to make many “design decisions” and conjectures on their own because no record of the previous garden design existed.

In describing the Morven gardens, I tend to say that they were designed by Annette Hoyt Flanders.  However, it is important to note that some gardens pre-existed Flanders’ work, and that her design drew much from these plans.  Descriptions of the gardens’ condition and Flanders’ role have changed over time.

According to the 1923 edition of Historic Gardens of Virginia,

In 1906, Mr. Samuel Marshall bought Morven from the Smith heirs, and since that time the old garden has been renewed.  …

The big box-tree, the white violets, and the striped grass by the garden gates, the tall bamboos and the lovely hollyhocks that take possession every year, are the plantings of other hands than the present owners.  The old terraces have not all been restored, but there has never been found any drawn plan of the original garden.  Some say that the view from the garden is lovelier than anything in it. …

The present garden has on one side a hedge of box grown from cuttings taken from the big box-tree.  Around the driveway, which leads to the entrance to the house, there is a new box hedge which the owner calls her “war hedge”.  This was bough in February, 1917, from a Belgian salesman who told her that these plants were the last shipment that could be made out of Belgium, as the German submarine ultimatum had gone into effect.  Happily, the plants have all survived and flourished, taking courage, no doubt, from the soil which started them.”

The author of this piece was Josephine P. Mashall – Mr. Samuel Marshall’s wife.  The Albemarle Garden Club was founded at Morven in 1913, and Josephine Marshall served as its first president.  As the piece indicates, the Marshalls cared for and added to gardens already existing at Morven, although no historic plan existed.

Six years later, by the time of the publication of the 1929 Descriptive Guide Book of Virginia’s Old Gardens, the gardens were described,

“The place has been bough by Mr. Charles Stone, of New York, under whose wise care the garden is being restored to its original beauty.”

If Josephine Marshall was an avid gardener, why was restoration necessary in 1929?  The 1953 Homes and Gardens in Old Virginia provides additional description of the gardens’ change over time,

“After Mr. Higginbotham’s death the property changed hands a number of times and in 1926 Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Stone purchased it from Mr. Samuel Marshall.  Mrs. Marshall had loved and cared for the old gardens, which had suffered somewhat from the ravages of time, and, in 1930, Mr. and Mrs. Stone began to rebuild them.  In doing so they were careful to retain the earliest known designs and with the wealth of flowers and shrubs that they have planted, they have added beauty while losing none of the old charm.”

Based on these descriptions, the garden during the Marshall-era incorporated plantings that predated their ownership although no plan existed, and the Stone-era garden (designed or restored by Annette Hoyt Flanders) incorporated plantings from the Marshall-era.  While, as noted, no plan for the pre-Marshall-era design exists, it is possible to compare the Marshall-era and Annette Hoyt Flanders plans for the Formal Garden.

Left, Marshall-era plan for the Formal Garden, published in the 1923 edition of Historic Gardens of Virginia. Right, Annette Hoyt Flanders plan for the Formal Garden.

Above are similarly-scaled plans for the Formal Garden during the Marshall-era and as drawn by Annette Hoyt Flanders.  Because the graphic conventions were so different, I have redrawn each using the same symbology.  The proportions do not exactly match, and it is not determined whether this is simply a difference in drawing/surveying, reproduction, or an actual change in the garden itself.  But, looking more closely, certain similarities and differences do emerge.

Planting Plan Comparison

The general shape of the formal plantings is similar; however there is more differentiation between plants in the Flanders plan, where the Marshall-era plan simply indicates “lillies”.  Boxwoods, shown darker, are used to frame space in each plan.

The beds are arranged similarly with respect to the large boxwood (box-tree).

However, where the beds in the Marshall-era plan were focused around a series of centers (crepe myrtles and a sculpture), these centers are absent from the Flanders plan.

And where the Marshall-era plan conceived of these beds as borders surrounding turf panels, in the Flanders plan the beds are fully planted.  The Flanders plan also includes additional beds to either side – indicating that the garden was enlarged from this center.

In the Marshall-era plan, vegetable gardens surround the Formal Garden.  In the Flanders Plan, vegetable gardens are maintained in the Cutting Garden area, but removed from the area below the Formal Garden: this is converted into an overlook.

Structural Comparison

Each plan uses stairs to establish grade changes.  The Flanders plan makes additional use of walls to define space.  Trellises help define the boundary of each garden.

Each garden incorporates grade change – but in the Flanders Plan, a terrace is created at the trellises and box-tree.  This terrace is not indicated in the Marshall-era plan.


It is clear from this analysis that Flanders incorporated aspects of the existing garden – however her plan enlarged the garden, adding additional beds to either side of the existing garden and creating a cutting garden.  The beds, while occupying the same footprint, were made fuller and more intensively planted.  A terrace was likely created – meaning that the Flanders garden was likely flatter than the Marshall-era garden.

While there are continuities between the Flanders Plan and the Marshall-era garden, and perhaps between the Marshall-era garden and designs previous to it, it is clear that Flanders substantially changed the planting plan, introduced new elements, and possibly regraded the Formal Garden.  Therefore, I feel comfortable describing this as a design.

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definitions: formal garden and cutting garden

My research on the Morven gardens focuses on the formal garden and cutting garden, designed by Annette Hoyt Flanders in 1930.  Because designers, theorists, historians, gardeners, etc might all use these terms differently, I would like to explain how I am using these terms in this project.

Formal Garden

As a student of Elizabeth Meyer, I am well aware that the term “formal” can be problematic in describing landscape.  Traditionally, “formal garden” has been used to describe gardens that are designed using Euclidean geometries: axes, arcs, etc.  This becomes problematic in that it implies that other gardens are “informal” – lacking any order whatsoever.  This often isn’t true – gardens might be organized around another principle aside from geometry, such as horticulture, hydrology, geology, etc.

In this case, I will be using the term Formal Garden because it is the term used by Annette Hoyt Flanders, and in use by the Morven staff today.  In using this term, I am not implying that all other gardens at Morven lack form and are orderless masses of plants.  Instead, I think that we might describe this garden as “formal” in social terms: while other gardens at Morven fulfill utilitarian, recreational, or meditative functions, this garden would have been used for formal social entertainment.

Cutting Garden

The cutting garden is a more utilitarian space: its main purpose is to provide bouquets for the house without sacrificing the appearance of the Formal Garden.  In the Annette Hoyt Flanders plan, beds of strawberries and vegetables would have occupied the center of this space.

While this space was primarily created as a source for flowers and vegetables, its design and appearance were clearly still important.  The flowers are not planted in rows, but instead arranged in beds that frame the space.  The shape of these beds and the grading plan serve to elongate the space.  While this wouldn’t have been a primary formal social space, it was still designed by a landscape architect and made presentable to the public.

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Spring at Morven

We had a warm February and the bulbs are coming up at Morven.  I had a very productive site visit today – look for a few longer updates over the next few days!

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House and Garden Hall of Fame

"House and Garden's Own Hall of Fame", June 1933

The 1933 House and Garden Hall of Fame features six female landscape architects: Agnes Selkirk Clark, Louise Payson, Rose Greely, Romney Spring, Ellen Shipman, and Annette Hoyt Flanders.  The section on Annette Hoyt Flanders reads,

“Mrs Flanders: For her broad grasp of horticulture, landscape design, architecture and practical engineering, and her ability to apply them to the creation of lovely gardens.  And for that essential which no training gives–native genius”


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Color, Simplicity, Economy and Site in the Annette Hoyt Flanders Garden

Unknown garden designed by Annette Hoyt Flanders with Vitale, Brinckerhoff and Geiffert, "Tulips for the May Garden", House and Garden, September 1923

The set of cutting garden diagrams generated this fall were inspired by my interest in Flanders’ educational background.  Since Flanders had an undergraduate degree in botany, and had gone on to study landscape architecture and architecture (and even civil engineering!) it stood to reason that her approach to the planting plan would likely be interesting. (for Flanders biography, see Unbounded Practice by Dr. Thaisa Way)

In moving into this next phase of my project, I have been working to better understand Flanders’ work so that my diagramming will not only reflect interesting aspects of the Morven plan, but of Flanders’ work as a whole.  While it is unclear how much of Flanders’ built work survives, she was also a writer for several publications.  The project descriptions and and design recommendations suggest several themes in her work.

Planting and Color

Flanders devotes much of her writing to description of planting.  These descriptions seem to be more anecdotal than advisory, but begin to provide insight into her approach to planting design.  Flanders describes a layering of plants to define a space,

Just beyond the wall to frame the garden in I have used White Pine in scattered groups because its rich yet soft texture gives weight to the composition.   To lighten this again and give grace to the planting, I massed in Dogwood, with its starry bloom and slender spreading arms.  Next , for the contrast furnished by their sheets of pink bloom, I  used Malus floribunda and, as an accent, a vivid Japanese Cherry.  …  (“Tulips for the May Garden”, House and Garden, September 1923)

Color is used to define space,

In every way their colors must reinforce and bring out the design. The corners must not be blurred with weaker shades but should gain an added strength of form from color. There should be no pale shades planted up against the wall except as accidental notes. The colors must not blend in eyen runs nor be grouped in masses like a patch work quilt, but should be kept intermingled in a joyous mass of irridescent, blending, glowing color. (“Tulips for the May Garden”, House and Garden, September 1923)


But to be successful a garden must never seem complex. It must not tire us by presenting a bewildering mass of beauty which, like a three-ringed circus, leaves us exhausted by our effort to take it all in. At first glance it must be simply lovely and inviting. Its beauties must unfold gradually so that we take them in without effort. Simplicity without obviousness is the secret of charm, for the obvious is never charming. It has no mystery.
It holds nothing in reserve. That is why so many gardens fail. They spread before us like nicely patterned rugs, are seen at a glance, and leave nothing to explore. (“The Garden That Has Charm”, Country Life, May 1922)

Flanders emphasizes the importance of editing and “simplicity” several times in her writing, warning against gardens which have too many elements or too much visual interest.  It’s clear from her description that something can be both simple and rich (presumably leaving something to explore).  Connections might be drawn between Flanders’ calls for simplicity and modern architects’ rejection of ornamentation.

A garden is a picture, and if we clutter it with too many elements of  interest-no matter how lovely each separate one may be-we lose its beauty as a whole through the variety of demands made upon our attention. We lose, too, that sense of peace and repose which must be the underlying reaction of a garden upon its observer. A restless garden has no beauty- gives no joy. Therefore, use only what you must have to create your garden picture. I can give you no more valuable advice than to keep to one simple theme for your main effect, and satisfy your collector’s instinct in your cutting garden. (“Tulips for the May Garden”, House and Garden, September 1923)

Wright Estate, "Sculptured Landscapes" Arts and Decoration, November 1935


Related to simplicity, Flanders’ emphasis on economy reiterates the importance of a garden that is not excessively showy or loaded with features.  Instead, she argues, a garden should have a few features and be both easily used and easily maintained.

Of all the gardens in which this fault is most glaring the so-called show place, whether large or small, is the worst offender. Fortunately, both for social and economic reasons, we are growing away from this type. The present-day tendency holds out promise of an increasing number of gardens of real charm; livable, lovable gardens planned to meet the needs of their owners and to be as inviting and much used as the rooms of their houses.

To answer this description, a garden must be designed to require the minimum of upkeep commensurate with the type of life led by its owner.  It must have permanency of construction and planting so that instead of deteriorating it will gain with the years that mellowness of beauty which only age can give. (“The Garden That Has Charm”, Country Life, May 1922)

In the November, 1935 article “Sculptured Landscapes”, Flanders emphasizes the importance of creating a grading plan which builds on the existing topography and balances cut and fill to minimize construction costs.  She also describes the importance of creating a compact plan to avoid wasted space and keep maintenance costs low.  Describing her design for the Charles W. Wright Estate in Wisconsin, Flanders writes,

By carefully planning an entire development before any work is started, especially before the buildings are located, a great saving can be made in these grading costs. Minimum upkeep can be planned for, and all portions of the property can be assigned to some definite use. Unused land represents a waste of capital investment, and unnecessary upkeep is a constant burden and expense. A skilfully prepared general plan will, therefore, pay for itself many times over in the saving effected on all these items. There is no waste space in design shown. All parts of this forty acre tract are used for some definite purpose. All parts that require definite upkeep have been localized into a comparatively small area into a closely knit series of units lying immediately around and to the North of the residence.


A beautifully proportioned design on carefully modelled earth is the basis or skeleton that should underlie every landscape development, whether it be formal or informal in type. Before attempting to design or layout a landscape plan one should study the area under consideration with great care. Just as a sculptor sees embedded in a piece of marble the lovely statue he plans to cut from it, so one must have a vision of the landscape design he wishes to have appear on his property.
Every piece of land has its own distinctive character; no
two are ever quite alike. The soundest, most beautiful design possible is always the one which, in the simplest way, takes advantage of every natural beauty which the land offers and which, with the least modelling-that is grading-arranges the land for the desired use. (“Sculptured Landscapes” Arts and Decoration, November 1935)

Flanders makes clear that the designer has a distinct and important role in designing a garden, akin to a sculptor working with a piece of marble.  The site has value, but the landscape architect must create a design that uses the site to its greatest advantage.

Plant selection is also described as a means of connecting the garden with the site,

By using the finer varieties of plants native to the locality in the planting, it has been made to harmonize with the countryside. It thus gains a semblance of age and a simplicity and charm that
leave it quite free from any studied, planted effect. (“The Garden That Has Charm”, Country Life, May 1922)

These first few readings provide immediate insight to the theory behind Annette Hoyt Flanders’ designs.  I will look forward to reading more of her articles to see how these themes develop and are added to across her body of work, and how they are evidenced in the Morven gardens.

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seasonal color

My fall 2010 research focused on the seasonal color present in the Cutting Garden.  Working from Annette Hoyt Flanders’ planting plan, diagrams representing the four seasons and foliage colors were generated.





This set of diagrams demonstrates that the planting plan emphasized blue-violet and yellow-orange flowers — two complimentary colors that would each make the other appear more vibrant.

With a lot of help and the VisualEyes program, an animation of these diagrams was created (click the Flanders Garden tab).  This semester, we hope to add additional functionality to the diagrams.

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